Those who didn’t venture near the Washington State Convention Center in the last four days are likely unaware that over 10,000 writers converged in Seattle for the 2014 AWP national conference. (Although, if you found it impossible to enter your favorite bar —or it was out of booze— you may have had a hint.)
Walking over to pick up my badge, I couldn’t believe it: never before had I heard people on the corner of 6th & Pike talking genre, developmental editing and small presses—and I don’t mean for coffee. Someone had opened a Pandora’s Box of nerdy writer speak, topics I don’t usually discuss outside of Hugo House (because… um, why?), which drifted between countless strangers wearing lime green lanyards and canvas tote bags. Some were Writers and others were writers, the strangers noted, but what struck me was that they came in all shapes, colors and sizes, most of them from outside Seattle. Maybe it was my head cold, but I smiled at the dizzying diversity and sameness among them, thinking, These are my people.
My fellow scriveners may not have felt equally enthusiastic about me, as I likely infected everyone I sat next to with my cold. (I keep waiting for Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman to come looking for me dressed in fatigues and masks.) Still, I had purchased a one-day pass and there was no way I wasn’t going to use it.
In the end, the virus saved me from another epidemic, one of blistering hangovers, though I didn’t feel much better on Saturday morning than if I had downed two bottles of wine and stayed up late talking about plotting the realist novel or women’s travel writing. Still, tweets like Tired is the new drunk, Ready for my power nap – this spot of carpet looks ideal and Saturday at AWP: where ‘hungover’ is a perfectly acceptable answer to ‘How are you?’ made me feel like I both missed something and did not.
One of few to emerge seemingly unscathed was Roxane Gay, who tweeted: There is vomit on the sidewalk outside of the Sheraton. Be careful out there. (Not mine. I am grown.) only to find a note and a ‘complimentary amenity’ from the hotel as thanks for the warning. If we are to believe countless blogs, tweets and articles about AWP, including Peter Mountford’s chuckle-worthy round-up for The Stranger, it seems that what makes a writer is not only the ability to write well, but the capacity to struggle, sulk, pine, drink copious amounts of alcohol, attend readings, wax narcissistic about one’s writing career—and repeat. (And, for poets, to be crazy-awesome at sex. Peter, do tell.)
It’s hard to argue with this comical yet sloppy caricature of writers because, from a certain standpoint, it’s true. Many writers I know can out-drink the construction workers I know. And they do suffer and pine (the writers, not the construction workers, whose physical labor boosts their endorphins and helps sweat out the booze.) In the past five years, I’ve come to know more writers than I’ve ever known and I’ve been surprised at how little common ground we sometimes share, perhaps because I, too, am a sufferer and a piner and a loner, and often feel misunderstood (okay, a lot) and, let’s face it, writers are kind of weird, me included. When we’re wrapped up in our own stories, it’s hard to bridge the gap more than superficially.
Yet, the weird-loner-boozy-writer myth is only as powerful as we make it. We embrace that illusion because it loosely fits and it seems cool and because we, frankly, are not. Our fears, not only of failure but, more pointedly, of mediocrity and anonymity, drive us to conjure the spirits of Hemingway and Stein, Plath and Proulx, imagining ourselves living hard-scrabble lives on remote ranches (Ooh – a perfect writer’s retreat! How do I apply?) or yearning to down a fifth of whiskey, believing that it will help us conjure works that are brilliant and life-changing (Breadloaf Scotland, anyone?)
We like the idea that there is a reward (publishing, fame) for our suffering, because what human who lives doesn’t suffer? As writers, we are tempted to let our insight into that universal suffering overtake us, and in doing so, we scout with wicked, solipsistic anticipation for ways to jab our own heads into hot ovens. Anything for a juicy life experience -er- story that will sell millions of copies of our navel-gazing survival journey through it. That’s print and digital, by the way. And film rights. Finally, all of those people who didn’t believe in us will be sorry, sorry, sorry. And jealous. And then we’ll win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Posthumously, but still.
That word, solipsistic, was spoken at nearly every session I attended. Like fashion, language is cyclical, so it doesn’t surprise me to hear this word-cum-meme bandied about at a writer’s conference — a place where we, as artists, assert that we represent the common person when we really represent ourselves in the guise of the common person. Whether fiction, non-fiction or poetry, writers translate the world through sullied lenses, even as we try to distance ourselves from the voice of our narrators or the slant of our story angles. As authors, we are urged to separate from our works, especially in memoir, where we must rise above our own suffering, humble ourselves fast and brutally, and search for something higher and richer while still keeping it entertaining. The few arts that aim to do this –to definitively separate maker from medium, rather than leverage the artist’s identity and art as one– are based on the written word. No wonder why writers drink — and attend conferences in the hopes of finding fellowship with writer-friends who drink.
Each night, I watched them come together at AWP events happening throughout town via social media from my tissue-littered couch. There were too many to attend even if I was well, from a pajama party with Chuck Palahniuk at Elliott Bay Books to readings by my favorite writers at every bar on Capitol Hill. Two more days of panels would have been fun, but these gatherings are what I’m truly sad to have missed. (Is it too early to sign up for AWP15 in Minneapolis? Maybe I can nab an Amtrak writer residency on the trip there…)
Though I didn’t see vomit-strewn sidewalks or writers napping on patches of carpet, I still feel like I had a good taste of AWP. Typically, half the reason for attending a conference is to explore a new city; in this case, AWP helped me see my home town from a different perspective. For one, I was able to witness our brand outside the Pacific Northwest debated constantly: I can’t believe how many Starbucks there are in Seattle – the hype is real! and The sun has been out for two days straight. We’ve been lied to. When someone on a panel euphemistically referred to his employer as “a very large technology corporation,” I whispered “Microsoft” to the confused Kentuckian next to me. In a day filled with insider lingo, at least I knew the local dialect.
That was my biggest takeaway from AWP: as a writer, I am a part of a larger community — not just Hugo House, but bigger. I’m still learning, but I speak the language. The challenges of its people are also mine. We share a common code. The self-perpetuated loner-writer mantra makes us forget that and, other than providing much-needed quiet necessary for writing, only does us a disservice. Being alone (as in lonely) is not cool, and neither is drinking alone, even less so when done in the presence of drugs or shotguns. Or ovens. If we, as writers, are made to open windows into the facets of humanity through the power of story, then we must embrace our nature as a social species: we can’t just write about people connecting, we must make a point to connect. This means pulling a comb through our hair and leaving the house occasionally. It means talking to the person next to us on the bus or at the coffee shop… or the conference. If we’re to write about people with any accuracy, we need to risk relating with them, including other writers.
Every session I attended —from panels on genre to memoir (my favorite: How to Spill Your Guts Without Making a Mess)— underscored the importance of human connection as equal to or greater than craft. While the titles of each varied, the message was the same: Rise above thy [solipsistic] nature and connect. Search for the universal truth, not singular suffering. Keep it simple, keep it real. Be patient. Resist the temptation to submit on the first draft. Other pearls included:
Who is the right person to tell the story—the person at the center, or the edges?
Don’t get caught up in writer’s problems (form, ego) over the driving question, the point of the struggle/story itself.
Memoir is not autobiography: it’s not full disclosure and it’s not about spilling guts. That’s a journal.
Writing that is worthwhile has consequences.
Four rules: Treat people with dignity. Be harder on yourself than anyone else. Never write to settle scores. Write beautifully – it invites its own forgiveness.
Data is not information is not knowledge is not understanding is not wisdom.
Think of plot not in terms of events but cause and effect. What will your characters do to complicate their lives? Plot is a connective tissue rather than a series of milestones; it’s the long answer to a short question that we all wonder about.
Beware making writing too beautiful too early; certain passages will become unmalleable and lend themselves to breaking entirely before the work is done.
Memoir is a response to the silences we encounter: the family memoirs of the 1970s are a response to the “perfect” families of the 1950s like the motherhood memoirs of today are a response to the have-it-all 80s.
Only the shallow know themselves. (Oscar Wilde)
You’re writing to bridge, not to highlight yourself. Allow some room on the page for everyone who isn’t you. Keep your own suffering in perspective.
In the eight years that I’ve worked with architects, I’ve heard many people sigh, I’ve always wanted to be an architect. I’ve heard an equal amount wish to be writers, including a few architects. My answer to both: No, you don’t. If the lawyers who wanted to be architects knew how many late nights they’d work drawing window details for low pay, their notions of cape-flinging bow-tied fame would disappear with a puff of e-cigarette smoke. Likewise, if those who dreamed of being writers knew how many hours it took to write a blog post or a shitty first draft of a short story –or the ten, twenty, fifty drafts between that and the finished piece– likely for no pay even if it was accepted by one of the forty publications they submitted it to, they would reconsider their wistful plea.
The difference between the wishers and the doers is exactly that. Some of us are up past midnight sketching or marking up that fiftieth draft because we can’t not do it. That’s what the solipsistic part of me insists, the part that feels only her own struggles, the side that wants people to know just how hard she works — the small, mean person who wants to flick those who take her life’s endeavor lightly through their boastful wishing: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I should write a book.
It’s because of those innocent fantasies and greedy myths —the bohemian author tripping the life fantastic awash with big ideas and interesting friends slurping booze in a Paris salon— that even writers have trouble seeing what it really takes to be a working literary artist. Rather than a life of leisurely boozing and dining, it means a separate career during the day, whether you are Charles Dickens, Charles Lamb, Richard Hugo or contemporary authors like Peter Mountford or Frances McCue. Each time any of us wishes aloud to be Hemingway or Stein, Plath or Proulx, we’re selling ourselves on a fiction, hastily convincing ourselves that writing comes easy for those meant to write, and that, as writers, we are owed a moody fantasy life that simply doesn’t exist.
Being a writer isn’t about notebooks or laptops or coffee shops or master’s degrees or agents or even best-sellers, but a relentless drive to create, no matter the cost or how long it takes. It’s about rejection, which means that you’ve attempted something. It’s about accepting risk. It’s about failing. More importantly, it’s about the desire to connect, if only we can get out of our own near-sighted way.
That’s why it takes a few turns at AWP, and a few decades of getting our hands dirty actually writing, to really get it. Some people’s careers take off early in life, and they are the exception. We need to hear that loud and often: writing takes work, it takes giving and receiving support from other writers, and it is mostly unglamorous. However, if it’s what you love, then writing is its own reward; it will, in its own right, eventually give rise to the universal truths that we all seek. If you really are a writer, not just a wisher, then by definition you cannot stop writing, and thus, you will not be able to avoid happening upon them.
One panelist quoted advice by Annie Dillard that stuck with me: Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.
In other words, let’s get it right, let’s tell it true. Get to it –how can we not?– but don’t rush.